Staging homes that need it most

November 30, 2011

Need to sell your house? Your broker may well recommend staging it — usually meaning winnowing down the furniture and accessories to a well-chosen few, artfully highlighting your home’s selling points, and neutralizing paint and personal touches so buyers can imagine it as theirs.

Most agents and staging professionals believe that staged homes sell more quickly than those that are not, but with so many factors that go into buying a home, it’s hard to quantify. At a time when some houses sit unsold for long periods, agents say staging can help a home stand out.

“Staging a home is more important in a slower market. You’re competing with more properties, and if your home doesn’t present well in the photos, people will click right by,” said Adrian Hunnings, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors.

Stagers can consult with a homeowner for two or three hours and offer a written report for about $150 to $375, allowing homeowners to make the recommended improvements themselves. For homes that require more work, the stager can do more of the heavy lifting by bringing in rugs, hanging art, repainting walls and fixing up landscaping. Those services can cost up to a couple of thousand dollars per month.

Because of the added expense, lawyer Raquel Rodriguez said she was initially hesitant to hire a staging professional to help sell her Adams Morgan condominium last year. But with a tenant living in her condo, no buyers materialized for two months. Once the tenant moved out, Rodriguez’s agent, Mary Lowry Smith of Coldwell Banker, picked up about a quarter of the $2,000 staging and furniture rental fee to make the home “warm and memorable and give prospective buyers a vision for my open floor plan. I appreciated it right away when she explained the concept,” Rodriguez said.

With several other properties for sale in the building and the neighborhood, Rodriguez had incentive to show her 1,250-square-foot unit at its best. She got two offers and sold 34 days after staging her home for the list price of $465,000. “It sold faster than it otherwise would have and faster than other properties at the time,” she said. “Staging it made the difference.”

According to the HomeGain 2011 Home Improvement National Survey of real estate agents, even do-it-yourself staging — on which Washingtonians spent an average of $350 last year — can bring a $1,500 to $2,000 payback in the sales price.

But there can be drawbacks, too. D.C. broker Bill Sawyer said there is such a thing as too much staging: A seller spent $16,000 on staging every room elaborately, but the home did not sell. The seller gave up, removed the furniture and decor, and sold the place two weeks later, empty.

Basic staging “brings some emotion back to the process, which helps bump the price up,” said Sawyer, of William Sawyer & Co. Realtors. “No need to go overboard with table settings.”

We asked local real estate agents and staging professionals to share tips and tactics to improve certain kinds of properties that have the most need for staging.

Vacant

If you’re selling value, you want to show off the size. “Empty always looks smaller,” Sawyer said.

Plus, “in an empty room, a photo shows a corner and a window. You can’t see the size or what might fit there,” said Sandy Gardner of Commonwealth Staging in Springfield. She is president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the American Society of Home Stagers and Remodelers.

Staging is useful once buyers arrive, too. “Empty rooms look cold,” said Smith, the Coldwell Banker agent, who recommends stagers or “softens” D.C. properties herself with rugs, tables and art.

If stagers don’t have a stash to draw from, they’ll rent furniture and accessories, which can run $750 to $2,400 a month depending on the furnishings needed, said Alex Atkin of Alexandria’s Decor Decorum.

To reduce costs, Jessica Flavell of Flavell Home Staging in Rockville imports inflatable mattresses (with all bedding) rather than full beds. You can also ask about leaving some of your own furniture. Stagers resist this, though, if yours is in poor condition or dated.

Small

Both stagers and real estate agents gave two reasons that staging is critical in condos and small houses: First, there’s no room for error. A bit of furniture, a mirror, a rug but nothing extraneous — that’s the key to showing a small room or condo in its best light, experts agreed.

Second, more would-be buyers of smaller places than larger ones are first-timers. Unused to gauging sizes and imagining decor options, they may have a hard time guessing whether their furniture will fit or how they might arrange a room to get the most from it.

Use furniture of proportional size, advised Nicci Parrish of Impress Me! Home Staging in Bowie. That means armless chairs and an armless love seat in place of a huge sofa.

Take everything off closet floors, stagers advised. Put your off-season clothes in your basement or a friend’s house. Empty closets to one-third to one-half, Flavell said, and use baskets for gloves and hats.

Clutter

A major reason agents recommend stagers for occupied — especially very occupied — houses is that these places really need help, and a stager is a neutral third party who can back up the agent’s assertion that clutter has to go.

“A space looks smaller when there’s too much stuff around,” Smith said. “People want to walk into the pages of a magazine or the fantasy of HGTV. And minimizing the contents helps people focus on the property.”

Parrish’s message to clients is: “You’re moving anyway. Let’s start packing up now.” Interim solutions include storage ottomans for toys and decorative boxes for a home office.

Atkin stresses the downsides: Once buyers have seen collections and clutter, she said, “it’s very difficult to get them to come back even if you drop the price.” Might as well clean up all at once than in stages, which can get expensive.

So take your tsotchke collection off the mantel; it distracts from the fireplace. Same with your family photos. “Especially in the first week,” Atkin said, “for the [online] photos, open house and broker walk-throughs.”

Don’t forget cabinets and drawers, Flavell said; buyers open them, so scrub them and reduce their contents.

Too much personality

Everyone should take kids’ drawings off the fridge and knickknacks off the shelves, stagers advised. Houses outfitted with a Redskins-themed den, a Disney-themed playroom or a Victorian boudoir should tone it down further.

“Anything very taste-specific is distracting or worse,” Atkin said. “You need to neutralize it to appeal to more people.” For instance, a buyer might not like the Redskins and a Redskins theme might leave a negative impression that lingers.

Gold blinds and animal prints are other examples of such personal tastes, Parrish said; she’d switch the blinds to beige or off-white. Victorian flowered wallpaper? “Take it down, paint it over or at least minimize the room’s colors by changing the bedspread to white.”

Elsewhere, invest in paint, probably several coats. “I would neutralize my kids’ rooms” before selling, said Shell Brodnax, president of the Real Estate Staging Association in Valley Springs, Calif. Her son’s room is in New York Giants blue and red, and her daughters’ room is in pink and green. “Buyers won’t be able to see past those bold colors.” She would flip the bedding, remove the wall decal and overall “take out the iconicness.”

Sometimes, homeowners’ feelings get hurt when stagers make recommendations, Gardner said. “It comes up frequently,” but she said she explains that there is a difference between decorating to live and decorating to sell. “We want the whole conversation to be about the home. We’re selling a product. Usually, they understand that.”

Ellen Ryan is a freelance writer.

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